Here’s what not to say when someone dies

November 19, 2013

By Kathleen R. Merrill

My mom died three weeks ago.

We were very close, and I feel like a part of my soul has died as well.

Kathleen R. Merrill Press managing editor

Kathleen R. Merrill
Press managing editor

We went to college together, we held hands when we went places, we talked on the phone more than once a week, and we sent each other packages and letters on a regular basis. My mom was my lighthouse, my sounding board, my biggest champion and my greatest friend.

In the past six months, I have experienced the death of three other family members. This means I have unwillingly become somewhat of an expert of what to say, or better yet, what not to say, when someone has lost a loved one. (And while I’m at it, why do they say lost? They didn’t just wander off…)

I recommend you NOT say these things that were actually said to me:

  •  “At least you still have your dad.” (Wow. I might be the biggest daddy’s girl in the history of man. I love my papa with all of my heart. But he doesn’t cancel out or make up for my mom. And it doesn’t matter what family member you’re talking about here — grandparent, parent, child, pet. One doesn’t make up for another, nor does anyone feel better that they “have one left.”)
  • “It’s a part of life. It happens to everyone.” (Really? Everyone dies? Thanks, buddy. I had no idea. Nice sentiment. But it does not make a grieving person feel better.)
  •  “Did your mom get to know the Lord before she died?” (In my head, it sounded a lot like, “Gee, do you think your mom is burning in hell right now?” Yeah, thanks. I don’t have enough torture in my life. I need to think more awful thoughts.)
  •  “She’s in a better place.” (This assumes a lot. Like she was sick for a long time or suffering or she didn’t love her life. All of those things were not true. And maybe it’s selfish, but I want her here with me.)
  •  “You’ll see her again one day.” (It’s true, but it doesn’t make me feel better now.)
  •  “How did she die? Was she sick? Are you burying her or cremating her? Did she leave you any money? What are you going to do with her house/things?” (What is this, the Spanish Inquisition? I’m not up to answering questions. And I don’t understand why you’re up to asking, especially if you don’t know me well.)
  •  “I know just how you feel.” (Although we all suffer loss in our lives, no one really knows how anyone else feels.)

I realize people are uncomfortable with the subject of death, and they don’t really know what to say. Most people want to make those left behind feel better. But don’t offer advice, unless it’s asked for. Don’t tell other people how to react or what to do. They’re not you. Everyone grieves in his or her own way.

Here are the few things I think are acceptable to say:

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I know you must be hurting.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

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